You were my only father for thousands of miles. Remember how we used to go out for lunch and talk about folklore? We dissected the way the figures in our myths decided our heroes and our ills.
I discovered a bit of American folklore after I last saw you.
Once there were the needle-men of New Orleans. In the nineteenth century, these needle-men crept up behind unsuspecting gentlemen of inconsequential status. In the movie theaters, in dark alleys, the needle-men would inject fast-acting toxins into their victims so the bodies would fall limp where they sat and stood. The bodies were collected and sold for medical research in Chicago and New York.
Let’s imagine that there are needle-men of a sort lurking behind all people. Let’s suppose the needle-man doesn’t seek to kill, but to transform. Alterations of character reign his specialty: only expected when, in response to his artistry, desperation confounds love, “no” warps into “yes.”
I’ve had a few runs with the needle-men of Peru. Here are few stories to unsettle you.
He slipped off his pants before he got into bed. I told him he couldn’t touch me. We were only sleeping in the same place in this road-side hostel because there was an emergency preventing us from going home. I had a boyfriend, and needless to say, sleeping in the same bed with my male host on my first day in a foreign city wasn’t ideal for any party. Despite my Spanish capabilities being limited as they were, I was understood.
I stayed awake beneath our teddy-bear fleece comforter, eyes open, heat climbing as I wriggled to find a comfortable position. He snuggled next to me. I had practice avoiding bed-time contact from when my sister and I slept in pull-outs on family vacations, feet smacking one another until we learned to sleep on polar ends, thin and still.
Rodrigo didn’t care for tacit rules. The further I scooched to the edge of the bed, the more closely he followed. I bore my weight against the wall so I could park in the crease where the mattress ended and the wall began. I managed to secure an inch of space as we both pretended to sleep. I heard his breathing on the pillow beside me. Sometimes his belly reached me as he inhaled, and in those moments fat swarmed around my elbow. I hid my face underneath the covers.
It was about two in the morning. He sat up in the dark. In one movement, he bent over the side of the bed and either put something down or picked something up. He lay back down quickly, resuming his original position beneath the covers. I lay in the bed for some minutes, imagining a knife in his hand, or something to bludgeon me with. How did men here (or anywhere) handle rejection? Was I wrong to assume respectful distance from my host, telling him only at the end of the night that my intentions never had nor would extend beyond friendship?
His body was still now. I sensed him waiting. “Excuse me,” I said. “I need to get up to use the bathroom.”
“Oh no, I’m sorry, we didn’t get a room with a bathroom. I’m sorry, I don’t know if we can use the one in the hallway. Don’t get—”
I pulled back the covers, violently, so I could see what he hid. I caught sight of a uniformly-colored swarm of skin before he snatched the covers to pull them over himself. He had removed everything below the waist. I went to the bathroom, peed, came back.
He lay there pretending to have the covers open voluntarily. He allowed me to see him in his undershirt and briefs. “Is it ok?” he said in English. There was a pause. Then he said “I’m sorry.”
“I just need some space,” I said.
“Yes, yes. We’re here because it’s just. An. Emergency.” He got out of bed, pulled his pants back on, and was out the door. He said “I’m going to the bathroom.” He didn’t come back.
I was lucky the hostel manager called him the next morning so I could return to where I was meant to stay, retrieve my bags and passport. After leaving his house—which wasn’t really his house, but the live-in office of a best friend—I got on a bus without telling him my next destination.
In fact I didn’t even know.
“Come, come he said, to my house. You’ll have some coffee and you’ll be on your way.”
His apartment was a one-bedroom room with a stove. Two large beds took up the majority of the space, and there was an armchair covered in pink flowered cloth. He told me to sit down. As the water heated, he busied himself unpacking. He threw his pants over the back of the chair on which I sat, turned on the television, explained that the Chinese Soap Opera channel was the only one with signal. He changed his shoes. Unzipped his pants and stepped out of them, took off his over-shirt. He put on a flannel. Buckled his belt. His fly he left unzipped.
He sat on the bed beside the chair.
“How are you feeling? Your coffee will be ready in just a minute. Just a bit of coffee, then you will be on your way.”
He touched my hand.
“So cold! Why so cold? My little one! My love! Here, here.” He put his hands on mine, covered my fingers with his palms, which I pinned tight to my knees.
I didn’t know how to say “poor blood circulation runs in the family.” All I said was “My mother is the same.” I thought about how I peed on the side of the road on the path down from the Incan ruins at Sondo right before I met Romulo, how I didn’t travel with paper or sanitizer, and how those germs were part of him now.
“Look at me, what kind of man do you see, my love? I’m a good man. A clean man. A professor.”
In my lap he plopped his binder of 3-semesters worth of course material. The binder was purple, its plastic cover sporting a raised outline of Elsa from Frozen. Romulo was a professor of Urban Studies and Civics. Three semesters and then he rotated to a new city. I flipped through the course material: political issues in Peru and their social effects. Cultural issues in an urban sphere. Quite interesting actually, and I told him so.
He sipped my coffee with a spoon.
“You have a boyfriend,” he said, confirming what I had told him on the bus.
“Yes,” I said.
He placed the coffee very carefully on a table beside my chair.
“Here relax, relax. Your hands are so cold my love!” He placed his hands over mine again. “How is your face?” He placed a clammy hand on my forehead. “O my little one! So cold! So cold, my love!”
He leaned from where he sat, hands still above my eyebrows, and moved his hands from my forehead to my cheeks. “Relax,” he said. He pressed my cheeks together, rubbed them around. I could feel the oil smearing, my trust waning.
“People in the West are so tense!” He said. Haha. He smiled, flashed me a gold tooth.
When he found more rigid than before, he rose and went to fix his own cup of coffee. As he stirred he spoke.
“You see I’m alone. I don’t have a family. I’m strong, but I want companionship. I have my brothers, my mother. My father is no longer alive. He was a doctor. He shot himself in the head. I used to have a girlfriend, but she died in Lima. It was a car accident. 2013. Four years I’ve been alone.”
He put the sugar spoon down and turned to me. He took off his glasses. His arms he opened as if he were a saint declaring himself fit for burning.
“How old do you think I am?” he asked.
“Forty three,” I guessed. I lied. He looked mid-fifties, old enough to be my father.
“Oh, Mamasita Mamasita.” He scurried over to me and again squeezed my cheeks. “Do you think I’m handsome?” Then he went back to fixing his coffee, murmuring all the while.
“I want a woman who is kind. Very intelligent. Earnest. Honest. Someone to spend a lifetime with.”
“There are many intelligent and beautiful women in Peru,” I said.
“Yes, but they’re dirty” he said, scrunching up his face. “They drink. I don’t drink. I never did, not even in my twenties. I go all over, to Andahuaylas, to Ayacucho, to Abancay, to Cusco, to Puchio. I have not found a woman for me anywhere. Puh.”
I was somewhat amazed that I could follow all this despite his ramblings in Spanish. But in his gestures I understood all. I learned new words. “Sucio.” Dirty. “Salir.” To go out. “Vamos a comer cuy.” Come let’s go eat guinea pig.
He knelt before me so his face was directly before mine. “Look at me. What do you see. A good man? Yes mamasita I’m a good man. I’m a good man. A religious man.”
He took my hands kissed them. A kiss and a kiss. An assault of kisses. He tried to kiss my face. I pinned my chin to my chest so his lips wouldn’t reach mine. “Place your hands on my head.” When I didn’t move, he took my coffee mug from my hands and placed it on the side table.
“Come, mamasita.” He took one hand and placed it on his own forehead. “Two hands please,” he said. He grabbed hold of my wrists and pulled my hands down so that they traveled from his forehead to either side of his face onto his cheeks. “Relax, relax,” he said. He pulled my hands together so the meat of his face squished into a fish shape. I tried to suppress a laugh but it puttered out.
“Very relaxing, my love,” he said.
I stood up. “I can’t stay. I’m sorry. I check out from my hostel at six. Goodbye.”
He rushed to the stove and started pouring me another cup of coffee. When I put my hand up in refusal he put down the pot.
“Fine. Fine. Go. Let’s go.”
He escorted me down. When we went to the gate, he looked towards the concrete. “Goodbye,” he said. The gate clanked shut behind him.
I scurried to the main road, breathed, hailed a buggy. Five minutes later and I was at my hostel. Two hours later and I was on the road to Cusco.
On the bus to Ayacucho I was the only foreigner. As I waded through the isle to my seat I saw one man who, in the din of the evening, looked like three sets of concentric circles.
It was a night bus. After we all had settled in our seats and the engine started, the lights flipped off. I could sense the circle man looking over to at every hour or so to check to see how I was faring, or perhaps to see if I was really there.
Towards the end of the bus ride, as we ventured up a particularly vicious wind of mountain road, I felt sick. I tripped several times on my way to the back of the bus, then fell onto a side platform. Fevered and almost incapacitated, the circle man was the one who opened the bathroom door, held out the bag for me to puke in, gave me a tissue soaked with alcohol to soothe the brain.
It was because of this graciousness, or perhaps it was out of exhaustion and resign, that I allowed him to escort me to my hostel in Ayacucho. He had not yet secured sleeping accommodations and so reserved a one-night stay at the same place in a separate room on a different floor.
Breakfast wouldn’t be offered until the next day, so we went out for coffee. After a short walk down a cobble-stone hill, he asked me if I had a boyfriend. We found a two-story cafe in the Plaza del Armas and ordered juice and sandwiches.
Are you feeling better? he asked. I could still taste the puke in my mouth.
I asked if he had a family. It was only my fourth day in South America, and I hardly knew any words in Spanish. He told me had two siblings, a sister and a brother. In his mid-forties, it was clear he had no spouse or children of his own.
Where was my boyfriend? Why wasn’t he with me?
The waitress came up with our juice and sandwiches. I reached out and began to eat.
Carlos told me he was called into Ayacucho to do technical repairs for a military database. “So you’ve traveled far for your work?” I asked in broken Spanish. “You enjoy it?”
“Yes, he said. It’s alright. I do important work. I’m called to many cities. Here’s my card. You know when I saw you I thought you looked lost. And drunk. I travel a lot but I don’t see women I like. I want a woman who is very intelligent. When I saw you I thought you were intelligent and beautiful.”
He reached out to touch my hand. “Your hands are cold” he said. “You don’t have gloves? You need a shower and rest, and then you’ll be better. I know.” He brought my fingers to his lips. I thought, puke. Dust.
I pulled my hands away so I could continue eating my sandwich.
After escorting me back he booked another room in the same hotel. “Save your dinner for me.”
I made a point to stay out until it was well past evening. He checked out the morning of the next day.
The needle-man doesn’t know age. He doesn’t know fidelity or fun. He is the cardinal traveler, working with stealth. His victims love him without knowing he’s there.
Remember how you supported your wife, unsteady after her stroke, from the living room to the bedroom, the day before I left? Remember how you scurried over to me at the guest table, pouring margarita mix into my glass? Instead of sitting across from me in your usual chair, you sat next to me on the couch. From there you told me, in a very unfatherly way, just how well you would miss me.
The needle-man might explain why, in all my travels, I watched the same possessive afflictions consume selfless, socially-conscious, even pious men. You are the same as Rodrigo, Romulo, and Carlos. You are the same as the Korean acupuncture specialist who pressed a metallic gadget to my breast, my Ghanaian chaperone with his distant fiancé.
The first time this sort of thing happened, you came to my house on the day the volcano erupted. It was Valentine’s Day. I stood outside my kitchen and my balcony windows dumped in a snowscape, only it wasn’t snow. It was ash, ash, falling on the courtyards and the trees. You pinned me against the wall. I could smell your age. I felt your tongue prying against my lips. The entire city was shut in, and there was no excuse to escort you out.
I wasn’t angry. I just thought, “where are you?”